A new Atheist meme has been making the rounds. The photo has been attributed to the “We ______ Love Atheism” Facebook page. Now, I don’t normally take a lot of time to respond to this kind of thing, but this one is just so grossly inaccurate that I felt compelled to at least comment on it briefly.
Now, I will be the first to admit that there are several Old Testament passages that are difficult to reconcile with the God who is made known in Jesus Christ. However, the vast majority of the passages referenced in this meme are not of that category. I’ve divided them into a few separate categories.
Passages That Do Not Refer to the Death of Children
Now. Passages that refer to the death of adults are in their own way challenging, however the appeal to emotion used in this section is that these verses refer to the death of children. Two of the indicated passages fall directly into this category, as they refer to death but not to the death of children. A third may or may not refer to the death of children.
Matthew 18:6 – My guess is that the creator of this meme probably did some kind of search for “children” and a keyword indicating that the passage involved killing, and came across this passage. In this section, Matthew is actually recounting Christ’s desire to protect children. The passage actually says that it would be better for an adult to tie a stone around their neck and be drowned than it would be for that adult to cause a child to sin.
Genesis 9:24 and Leviticus 10:3 – Now, Genesis 9:24 doesn’t refer to children at all… so I’m not sure how it even got on the list. I thought maybe the sin committed in Genesis 9:24 was later condemned in Leviticus as deserving of burning… but it wasn’t. Leviticus 10 is the account of Nadab and Abihu (Aaron’s adult sons) being burned for participating in some kind of unknown and foreign cultic ritual using “strange fire,” which the LORD then caused to consume them.
Deuteronomy 21:21 – This passage is a genuinely difficult one, and it may or may not include children. However, it does not HAVE to include children, and a good argument can be made that it does not include children. The word translated as “Son” ( בֵּן / ben ) can, and often does, refer to adult male children. In the passage referenced above, Aaron’s sons are adults. In the Genesis passage above, Noah’s sons are adults. Furthermore, there is a Hebrew word that is used to indicate a child in general ( יֶלֶד / yeled ) or a young boy ( וָלָד / valad ), neither of which are used in this passage.
Passages That Describe the Desperate Time During the Siege of Jerusalem
There are a group of passages that are descriptively referring to the horrors and desperation that happens during the siege of Jerusalem.
Lamentations 2:20 – The author of Lamentations (traditionally Jeremiah) is commenting on the fact that the starvation in Jerusalem is so terrible, that women are eating their children. He is not necessarily indicating that the children are being killed and it is certainly possible that women are eating the bodies of their children who died from starvation. Even if the women are killing their own children (which the Bible records that some indeed did), it is definitely not advocating that this be done and elsewhere this kind of activity is roundly condemned.
Ezekiel 5:10 – This passage is referring to the same kind of thing as Lamentations is, only it is doing so prophetically. The Prophet Ezekiel is warning the people that if they do not repent of their sins, that God will allow the Babylonians to siege the city, and the situation will be so desperate that parents will resort to the unimaginable. This passage also includes the converse, that children will consume their parents as well, which leads me to think that the Prophet here has in mind consuming the bodies of those who die of starvation.
Nahum 3:10 – Nahum is a post exilic author who looks back at the destruction of Jerusalem and recounts what happened when Babylon finally broke through the walls and conquered the city. He recounts that the children of the defeated citizens of Jerusalem being “dashed in pieces”, which likely meant that they were cast to the ground by the conquering soldiers and crushed by armored boots. He certainly does not recount this with any level of joy, and most certainly is not advocating this activity.
Exodus 12:29 – This passage recounts the death of the first-born in Egypt. Now, this has its own difficulties, but if the Atheist is going to call this murder, then they ought to call all instances of an infant who dies murder. While they may do this, this is really not any different than when a child dies of natural causes.
Revelation 2:23 – Now, it may seem strange to place Revelation in the list of Historical passages. However, this section of the Apocalypse is written to historical congregations, facing historical realities. The Church in Thyatira was apparently being spiritually seduced by a group identified with the Old Testament queen Jezebel. The children that will die among the group identified with Jezebel will be “struck dead.” I’m not going to go to the pains of identifying which group this is referring to, most likely the afflicted children died of a plague. This brings me to the same point as my comment on Exodus 12:29
Deuteronomy 32:24 – This passage is speaking of a concrete and historical judgement that would fall upon Israel as a result of the violation of the covenant they agreed to. In addition to God allowing the foreign armies to conquer them, he also allows wild animals to attack them as those who flee the military attack of Babylon rush into the wilderness. Again, the passage is not advocating this as a positive thing, it is describing prophetically what will happen if Israel does not fulfill the covenant it agreed to.
Genuinely Difficult Passages
This leaves us with some genuinely difficult passages. I’m not going to spend a lot of time explaining each one, as there are many resources available that do just that. However, I will address each of them briefly.
Deuteronomy 21:21 – Although I addressed this above as not necessarily referring to children, it is still a tough passage. The idea of stoning an adult Son for disobedience is hard for us to fathom. However, the Law given to Israel had a purpose and is not an universal dictate. Christians are not called to stone their children if they disobey (or homosexuals, or adulterers, or any of the other violation that merit capital punishment in the Law). The Law in general, and the capital punishment laws especially, is designed to show us the high standards of righteousness that God holds. The severity of the punishment not only served to guard Israel against certain kinds of failures, but points to the fact that each of us is deserving of death.
Joshua 10:36 – The conquest of Canaan, particularly in cases where everyone and everything is destroyed, is hard for us to grapple with. There is an excellent article in the most recent edition of Modern Reformation where Michael Horton handles just this. Again, this is a specific instance of a specific command, given to a specific people. This is not an endorsement or command to conquer in God’s name, nor is it a general command of what to do with the children of our enemies.
Matthew 19:29 – This passage is interesting, because it isn’t really about killing at all. The passage simply indicates that those who have left a life (including children) in the service of Christ will be blessed. Although the conclusion drawn is that the children die due to neglect, it is not even an implicit consideration in the text. It is, none the less, a difficult concept. I am not going to comment much on it, only to say that I think a deeper analysis of the text is required, since elsewhere in the Bible Christians are commanded to care for their families and told that to neglect their duties to their families makes them not only like an unbeliever, but actually makes them worse than an unbeliever.